Published August 24, 2012
By Jeff Cobb
Bubbles in air.
Several major automakers have hydrogen fuel cell projects underway, with initial roll out of pilot fleets already underway and others scheduled by various companies for subsequent years, but all of them have significant cost and sustainability considerations yet to overcome.
This week scientists in Cambridge were encouraged by crossing a milestone toward one aspect of the chicken and egg problem, the need for a sustainable and cost-effective source for hydrogen (H2).
Using a cobalt catalyst instead of expensive platinum, the researchers published results significant also in that they were done in the "industrially relevant" conditions in which air was present, and at room temperature.
“Until now, no inexpensive molecular catalyst was known to evolve H2 efficiently in water and under aerobic conditions. However, such conditions are essential for use in developing green hydrogen as a future energy source under industrially relevant conditions,” said Dr Erwin Reisner, an EPSRC research fellow and head of the Christian Doppler Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. “Our research has shown that inexpensive materials such as cobalt are suitable to fulfil this challenging requirement. Of course, many hurdles such as the rather poor stability of the catalyst remain to be addressed, but our finding provides a first step to produce ‘green hydrogen’ under relevant conditions.”
Although not ready to produce affordable cars, a summary article by Cambridge said the progress is remarkable in that abundantly available cobalt basically worked, and this heartened them given that alternative homogeneous catalyst systems have to date proven inefficient.
“A H2 evolution catalyst which is active under elevated O2 levels is crucial if we are to develop an industrial water splitting process – a chemical reaction that separates the two elements which make up water,” said Reisner. “A real-world device will be exposed to atmospheric O2 and also produce O2 in situ as a result of water splitting.”
You’ll note also he conceded they still need to address poor stability of the catalyst. Next on the plate is a solar water splitting device in which the hydrogen and oxygen are simultaneously produced.
“We are excited about our results and we are optimistic that we will successfully assemble a sunlight-driven water splitting system soon,” said Fezile Lakadamyali and Masaru Kato, co-authors of the study.
The researchers say a sunlit-driven method could yield “green and sustainable H2 instead of not-green and not-sustainable processes presently used to produce H2 from fossil fuels which produces CO2 as a by-product.
The research was published in em>Angewandte Chemie International Edition for those who wish to read more on these developments.